I was brought up on a diet of Commando Comics, Biggles and Alistair MacLean’s war novels. My greatest wish, when I was ten years old (and rated David Westheimer’s Von Ryan’s Express as the best book ever written), was to see the film version of the book. More about that in a later post, when I’m scraping the barrel for films to review. World War II is an obsession with me (well, almost: it shares space with Westerns, Mughal history, gelato, and a couple of hundred other things). So, a war film, and that too one starring Gregory Peck, was bound to arouse my interest. And am I glad I saw it.
Twelve O’Clock High is a war film that examines the relationships, fears and psychologies of the men who went into battle—and yet it never topples over into melodrama. The action is sparing, the acting excellent, the atmosphere very real.
The film begins in London in 1949, when a bespectacled American (Dean Jagger) comes across a battered and chipped Toby Mug in a shop window.
The mug stirs memories for the man, and he buys it, has it packed, and then goes far out into the countryside to a deserted old airfield called Archbury—you can just about make out the name spelt out in white stones on the ground. The runway is wet after a shower; the buildings are weatherbeaten; and cows graze at the far end. The grass is knee-high, and even as the man stands looking out over the airfield, the grass ripples as in the prop wash of a plane, the roar of engines fills the air…
…and we’re back six years, in late 1942. The US Army Airforces 918th Bomb Group’s bombers are landing after a mission, and they’re a mess. There have been casualties left, right and centre, and those who’ve survived are at the end of their tethers. Lt. Jesse Bishop (Robert Patten), for example, struggled for two hours to take over the controls from a pain-maddened pilot with the back of his head blown off. After two hours of constantly wiping the pilot’s blood off the windscreen, Bishop’s gone to pieces.
The extremely popular Group Commander, Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is hauled up soon enough by his boss at Bomber Command, General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell). Davenport’s friend, and General Pritchard’s second in command, Brig. General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) is there when Pritchard tries to find out the reason behind the day’s debacle.
Davenport says the men have been flying one mission after another; they’re men, not machines. And the missions they’ve been on—daylight precision bombing, all requiring `maximum effort’—is suicidal. Davenport blames it on the group’s hard luck, and even tries to take the blame for a wrong decision made by his navigator.
At the end of it all, General Pritchard tells Davenport he’s relieved of his duties as Group Commander; instead, he’ll report to Pritchard and someone else will take over the 918th.
Savage, in a talk with Pritchard, gives it as his view that (friendship aside) Davenport has made the mistake of bonding too closely with the men who report to him. Pritchard, after some thought, agrees; and ends up asking Savage to take over the 918th.
Savage knows he’s being dumped with the dirty job of reviving a bunch of dead beats, men who’re demoralised and just about ready to give up—and they’ve been deprived of their hero and mentor, Davenport. But Savage (and what an apt name!) isn’t one to mollycoddle people. Arriving at Archbury airfield, he first ticks off the lenient sentry…
…demotes the half-dressed Sergeant McIllhenny to private…
…and has a brief but cold chat with the intoxicated Group Adjutant, Major Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger again—so this is where our man in 1949 was during the war!). Stovall is a World War I veteran, and has been given a desk job because they think he’s too old to go into combat. He’s a sharp, outspoken man, and admits to Savage that he’s drunk.
And that isn’t all; the Ground Exec is in hospital with mumps; the navigator (whom Davenport tried to shield) has committed suicide, and the Air Exec is AWOL. Savage quickly gives Stovall his orders, which include finding the Air Exec and arresting him; and cancelling all leaves and passes.
The Air Exec, Lt Col Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe) is found soon enough. Some questioning and it turns out Gately had left the station to go out and get drunk. A glance though Gately’s personnel file, and Savage discovers he’s a Westpointer, with distinguished military ancestry, and—as Savage describes it—“a yellow streak a mile wide”. Savage demotes Gately to an airplane commander. He’s to paint the words `The Leper Colony’ on the nose of his plane, and anybody who’s a loser—navigator, gun crew, pilot—automatically gets assigned to him.
That evening, Savage goes to the bar and orders it shut down indefinitely:
And the next morning, at his first briefing of the men, he tells them in no uncertain terms that death is a way of life; they better get used to it. The briefing’s short and sharp, and brings the men’s simmering resentment to a boil.
Back in office, Savage meets the new Air Exec, Major Cobb (John Kellogg) and the doctor, Kaiser (Paul Stewart). Cobb assures Savage that he’ll do his job; Kaiser confides that more and more men are reporting sick—with colds and other complaints that are a sure sign of shirking.
And then another visitor comes calling: Lt Bishop, now much more in control of himself. He’s been elected a spokesman for the pilots, and he’s come to let Savage know that all of them are applying for transfers out of the 918th.
How does Savage deal with this? What happens to the 918th? What makes for Stovall’s nostalgia, six years later?
Ultimately, if I look back at Twelve O’Clock High, I don’t see anything exceptional in the plot. Hard taskmaster takes over a group of losers and whips them into shape: it’s been done before (The Desert Rats and Von Ryan’s Express, to quote just two examples). What makes this film special is its sensitivity and its excellent characterisation: Savage, hard and no-nonsense, but with a conscience that drives him to make amends to a man he’s misjudged; Stovall, wise but ready to take his one last chance at glory; and Davenport, bitter at being sidelined, but eventually Savage’s friend. And Gately, trying desperately to redeem himself from the mess he’s got himself into.
The actual battle sequences in this film cover just a few minutes; it is emphatically not about blood and gore (in fact, I don’t recall seeing any blood anywhere), or guts and glory. Just about a man who pushes and pulls at the men below him, knowing he will be hated for it. It’s more human drama than anything else, and it’s very well done.
What I liked about this film:
Gregory Peck: such superb acting. Dean Jagger won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and Peck got nominated for Best Actor—but honestly, I think Peck deserved an award for his role as Savage: harsh, friendly, humorous, unsure, traumatised: he is everything a man with such a burden on his shoulders would be.
The screenplay: taut and just so, mixing silences with action, leaving as much unsaid as spoken out aloud.
What I didn’t like:
Up to the point when Pritchard finally assigns Savage to the 918th, the film moved perhaps a tad too slow. What made it a little confusing was that the names to the faces came too late. Cobb, Kaiser, McIllhenny, Stovall, and Gately are all shown in the first half hour, but they’re introduced by name and designation only when Savage takes over: at least for me, this made their initial interactions puzzling—I struggled a bit to figure out exactly how each of them was concerned with what was happening.
But, leaving that aside: this is a superb film. If you like war films, don’t miss Twelve O’Clock High.
Little bit of trivia:
The air combat scenes are all actual footage from the US Airforce and the Luftwaffe.
[Lastly, a very special thank you to Ross Rainwater, who kindly pointed out some mistakes I'd made in this review, and corrected them. Thanks, Ross!]